Extremism in pursuit of Cicero

Glenn Reynolds links a piece by Kay Hymowitz in the Wall Street Journal, and my purpose here is not to debate the merits of my alleged "freedom fetishism" or even whether I should be judged guilty of the "libertarianism" claimed by Ron Paul.

I simply noticed an error in the Hymowitz piece:

Murray Rothbard, for example, became a fan of Che Guevara and the Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown. Karl Hess, a libertarian/anarchist said to have written Barry Goldwater's famous lines about "extremism in the defense of liberty," was an equal-opportunity revolutionary; during the 60s, he symbolized his move to the New Left by donning a Castro-style beard and jacket. And many young libertarians spent the decade moving back and forth between the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom and the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society.

The point in rehearsing this history is not to play gotcha; many good people did and thought things during those days that they would prefer not to remember (assuming, as the joke has it, they can remember). Rather, it is to suggest that when one's moral compass consists of nothing more than doing "whatever the hell you want" and avoiding physical harm to anyone else's person or property, it is very easy to get lost.

I plead guilty to getting lost and it's especially easy to get lost when quotes are misattributed. While Ilya Somin has already disputed the remarks about Murray Rothbard (and more), I immediately noticed that the "extremism in the defense of liberty" remark is not being attributed correctly. It is common knowledge that these words in the Goldwater speech came from Harry Jaffa.

This is not open to serious dispute. Libertarian sites like Mises.org and Lew Rockwell on the one hand, and conservatives such as Heritage's Lee Edwards also say it was Jaffa. Even the Karl Hess Club (which might certainly be expected to claim credit if Karl Hess had written the words) has a long, link-filled post noting that Jaffa was responsible. (The latter expresses eternal gratitude for getting the credit, but nonetheless maintains steadfastly that he was only quoting Cicero.)

Moreover, this dispute (if it is that) has been settled for a long time. In 1999, Jonah Goldberg even went so far as to scold Libertarians who persisted in claiming that Hess wrote the line:

Some of you Libertarians took a break from your free-love lifestyles to insist that Karl Hess wrote the Goldwater "Extremism" Speech instead of Harry Jaffa. I knew this would happen. In modern American politics, no speech has been more unpopular when delivered, yet had more people dying to take credit for it. This is a fight I do not want to get in the middle of. But my extensive research (what are you laughing at? I can do research) reveals that at least the credit for the extremism line goes to Jaffa. That is what Goldwater, Jaffa, John Judis, and quite a few others who've dug into this have deduced. Hess drafted the speech, but the line goes to Harry. I was right and you were wrong, which is why we cleverly put "clarification" next to "correction" in the title -- so I can gloat sometimes.
What's interesting about this is that the "extremism" was originally used as a smear by the left against Goldwater, because it sounds, you know, extremist! Wacky, even.

Libertarians may be to blame for a lot of things (I certainly think Ron Paul has done enormous harm to the "l" word), but their only crime in the context of the "extremism in the defense of liberty" quote seems to be that some of them -- years ago -- tried to misattribute it to a libertarian before it was settled.

Again, my point is not to write a marathon essay disagreeing with Ms. Hymowitz's assessment of libertarians. (Besides, M. Simon's great post beat me to it.) However, if libertarianism is in fact "the natural home of assorted cranks and crazies," and "thus to continue to provide fodder for its at least partly deserved caricature," as she suggests it is, it will have to manage to get along without the credit for Goldwater's memorable line. Its author Harry Jaffa is not a libertarian.

Not that it would matter much if he had been a libertarian. Because Jaffa was not writing as a libertarian; by his own admission, he was quoting Cicero.

Whether Cicero was a libertarian is very questionable.

However, in light of this blog's theme, I figured that just for today, maybe I could declare myself a small "l" Ciceronian libertarian. Has a nice ring, doesn't it?

Not so fast.

My Ciceronian libertarianism might be short-lived! Because it turns out that Cicero was defending hasty executions. Here's William Safire with the full Cicero quote:

As best I can reconstruct it, the inflammatory speech was largely written by Hess, with a quotation -- of Marcus Tullius Cicero defying the conspiratorial Catiline -- contributed by Professor Jaffa; Goldwater (or one of his acknowledged ghosts) wrote later that "I had heard it earlier from the writer Taylor Caldwell."

Cicero, criticized for his hasty execution of five of Catiline's supporters, said, "I must remind you, Lords, Senators, that extreme patriotism in the defense of freedom is no crime, and let me respectfully remind you that pusillanimity in the pursuit of justice is no virtue in a Roman."

It may have worked oratorically for Cicero but backfired when used by Goldwater.

Does this mean small "l" Cicero libertarians are in favor of hasty executions?

Maybe I should think it over....

MORE: Wiki claims that Cicero worked with Cato to shift the Senate majority to vote in favor of the executions.

(Far be it from me to argue against Cato....)

AND MORE: I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but hasty executions seem to be a contemporary topic, and Ciceronians as well as libertarians are defending the right to criticize them.

posted by Eric on 09.13.07 at 11:17 AM


And then there was the man who was convicted despite a solid alibi. It was confirmed that he was receiving a sex act from a prostitute in the arm of that big statue in New York harbor at the time the crime he was charged with was committed, but everyone knows that vice in the extremity of Liberty is no defense.

triticale   ·  September 13, 2007 3:03 PM

It seems like organized libertarians tend to be insane... Ron Paul comes from a long line of nutty liberterian politicians...


Earnest Iconoclast   ·  September 13, 2007 6:43 PM



OregonGuy   ·  September 14, 2007 12:15 AM

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